While doing research for my dating advice book, Your Ex-Boyfriend Will Hate This, I found that there is a confounding relationship between logic and illogic in the way we view sexual attraction. And since writing the book 3 years ago, the research continues to be comprised of roughly equal parts common sense and mystifying madness.
Some of the research is surprising on its face, but when examined more closely, does provide trenchant insight into how the genders differ in key ways when it comes to sex. A 2013 study conducted at the University of Notre Dame by sociologist Elizabeth McClinton drew from a survey of about 14,000 young adults to investigate whether level of personal attractiveness affected the sexual choices of men and women. She found that women who were rated as very physically attractive were more apt to seek out monogamous relationships than casual sex. They were also less likely to have sex in the earliest stages of dating, and had fewer sexual partners. However, in men, she found the exact opposite to be true. The number of sexual partners for men demonstrably increased based on their perceived desirability to the opposite sex.
This study isn’t that revelatory when you think about it, but it does have some potentially troubling things to say about the connection between intimacy and the way we view ourselves. In addition to finding that level of attractiveness had an inverse relationship to the number of sexual partners among women, the study found that weight had a clear effect as well. Women who were below the average body mass index (the relationship between weight and height) had fewer partners than those above it.
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So what does this say about the way we view ourselves, and the cultural codes we’ve been taught, when it comes to who we sleep with? It’s unlikely that women rated as less physically attractive have a more voracious sexual appetite and less interest in substantive romantic relationships. It’s equally unlikely that “hot” guys want sex more than those blessed with less dazzling cheekbones. Instead, it suggests that—despite all the great advances we’ve made in terms gender equality, both in and out of the bedroom—some ugly, retrograde ideas have survived. Namely, that it’s normal for men to sleep with as many women as they are able to, without any potentially adverse affects on their ability to find true intimacy. But women are still being taught that if you aren’t a thin supermodel, you are less deserving of real, lasting love.
Even if this idea has migrated from the overt to the subliminal, our culture is still sending the general message to women that “you are only as valuable and deserving of true love as how ‘hot’ you are”. This is, of course, absolutely goddamned ridiculous. That this still isn’t common knowledge among young women is damning evidence that, despite all our pretense to modernity, it’s still unfortunately a man’s world.*